Saturday, April 29, 2006

Schools That Would Make Joseph Stalin Happy

Schools That Would
Make Joseph Stalin Happy

It seems I was dreaming the other day and I was thinking there must be a think tank, with lots of money to spend, that is studying and pondering the decayed state of American education and seeking solutions:

Think Tank Person #1: The seeds now being sown by our educational system, I fear, will eventually reap disastrous results. A generation from now, more or less, when the US constitution is changed and the US is ruled by a small oligarchy, when the opportunity for democracy has disappeared, it commonly will be agreed that the schools are to blame. It commonly will be agreed that schools paved the way for the collapse of our democracy. In the future, when it is too late, people will understand the terrible price of our current school structure. We currently have a school structure appropriate for North Korea or the old Soviet Union, not for a democracy.

Think Tank Person #2: Who would have thought that in a democracy, such as ours, schools would be known for their authoritative central control, unquestioned obedience, and rigid, punitive, and narrowly defined accountability. It is strange that a democracy would allow its schools to focus on purposes appropriate for totalitarian states: training workers for jobs, acclimating future citizens to passivity, convincing future citizens to accept the power structures of their society and convincing future citizens to accept the values of those in power. Schools, when asked to identify their best students, do not highlight strongly developed individuals with a passion for justice, democracy, freedom, and independent thinking. The best students, according to schools, are those who have most fully acknowledged the authority of the system, have met the demands of the system, and who have approbation of the system. Stalin would have been happy with such school criteria.

Person #1: We need to create a school design that will aim to develop effective citizens for a democracy, not effective citizens for a totalitarian state. We need to find ways for schools to help each child find and develop not only his or her academic potential but his or her entire human potential: the potential to continually grow in character and personal development, the potential be a good neighbor, the potential to value and advance justice, democracy and freedom, the potential to rise above narcissism and to contribute to the general good of society.

Person #2: Not all parents would want to send their child to a school that attempted anything other than academic instruction.

Person #1: That is why the school we create must be a school of choice, a charter school, using public money and open to all students -- a school of choice. It must be a school based on the free market. I believe that we can eventually prove to reluctant parents, over time, that a school that emphasizes developing the total education of a child is successful in helping each child develop his or her academic potential as well. I believe that, over time, because of the success of our school, parents will demand changes in their traditional public schools.

Person #2: But what are we really talking about? How should we go about designing a school that emphasizes the total education of children, and that prepares children to be effective citizens in a democracy? What is our vision of such a school?

Person #1: Why don’t we just give Terrell Shaw $1 million and see what he comes up with?

Person #2: Don’t you think that we should create a Request for Proposal (RFP), like the serious think tank that we are, and invite everyone who seeks to develop a good idea to apply?

Person #1: The question: What will a RFP look like that will generate thoughtful replies? Here’s my idea I’ve been thinking about. Let’s create an RFP that is a two part thought experiment.

Part One: Suppose you live in a time of kings and your king has a 12 year old child and the king assigns you the responsibility for the 12 year old’s total education. How would you define “total education”? What are the theories and principles that would guide your actions? How would you proceed with seeing to the education of the 12 year old?

Now that sets up the premise. The key question to answer is: How would you engage this 12 year old child in the persistent effort and concentration needed for his or her individual development? This is the same key question, of course, that is appropriate for every 12 year old, regardless of financial or social status. Would you reward and punish with grades and praise? Would you insist that he or she study math at 10:00 AM every day? I don’t think so. This thought experiment forces a realization that much of what we consider as appropriate schooling for the masses should be discarded, and a way should be found to meaningfully personalize the education of every child.

And the second part of this line of thought is this: Now that you have a strategy based on sound theories of how to successfully deal with the total education of the 12 year old child of a king, how would you apply your strategy to the total education of an impoverished charter school student, with a school budget of $5500 per student to spend? Answering this second part means that, by centering on the child, you would need to rethink basic school structures; you would need to rethink basic premises about the purpose and method for allocating resources.

Person #2: Treating every child like a king? What you are saying is that the system must start by acknowledging the worth and importance of the individual. The point is that schools should help each child to develop into strong individuals, not according to the definitions of the state, but according to the potential and inclinations of the child. The point is that schools should help each child to acquire the tools that will empower and encourage him or her to fully participate in democracy. A totalitarian state would ferociously oppose such aims for schools, and, the truth is, such a school would be condemned by totalitarian forces in our own country, who basically mistrust the force and potential of democracy.

I like your thought experiment idea. Are you going to write the RFP so we can more carefully look at the details?

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